The report ‘Global Warming of 1.5oC’ was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018. Although the report does not say so, the evidence it presents renders the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change redundant. It asks the wrong question, and its goals and strategies are now revealed to be completely inadequate for avoiding catastrophic climate change.
In 2015 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) invited the IPCC to write a report on the benefits and feasibility of keeping global warming below 1.5oC. The commonly reported findings (e.g. here and here) of the report are that: the 1oC of warming that has already occurred is causing significant environmental, economic, health and social problems across the globe; the problems will increase considerably if warming reaches 1.5oC; there are tremendous benefits to be gained environmentally, economically and socially and for health from limiting warming to 1.5oC compared with 2oC; it is still just feasible technologically and economically to keep warming below 1.5oC but the scale of social and economic change required is unprecedented; warming cannot be contained without simultaneously reducing global poverty and inequality and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals; if current national policies and greenhouse gas emissions continue unchanged warming may exceed 1.5oC in as little as 12 years.
The whole IPCC process has its critics and this report does not adequately consider ‘positive feedback’ phenomena and irreversible ‘tipping points’ such as the loss of icesheets on land and sea, the melting of permafrost and the loss of the Amazon forest. Individually and collectively such events will cause even more rapid increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, global warming and sea level rise. However, the general conclusion of most commentaries is that the IPCC report contains a wakeup call (not that anyone who has been paying attention should need one) for governments and inter-governmental bodies to act now to avoid the highly disruptive environmental, social and health damaging consequences of 1.5oC of warming. While this is true, the report contains far more important messages that have not been well reported.
First, although the 2015 Paris Agreement includes keeping global warming ‘well below’ 2oC, the ‘well below’ is unspecified and most analyses focus on 2oC of warming. However, 2oC is not (as it is frequently portrayed) ‘safe’ for the environment or humanity, and is not based on science (it has always been a diplomatic compromise). Warming of 2oC will have catastrophic consequences for the environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, human health and even human civilisation, and must be avoided rather than viewed as an acceptable limit.
Second, the time has passed for setting arbitrary, politically-driven, limits for maximum warming, whether that be 1.5oC or 2oC. The IPCC report clearly demonstrates that every incremental increase (for instance every additional 0.1oC) in warming will bring increasing consequences for the environment and humanity. It follows that warming of 1.4oC will be safer than 1.5oC, and 1.5oC safer than 1.6oC, etc. It is now imperative to focus not on debating whether and how to stay under 1.5oC or 2oC but rather to do all we can as quickly as we can to keep global warming as low as possible; every 0.1oC of warming avoided saves lives.
Third, the inevitable consequence of increment awareness is that, despite being only three years old and despite being a stepping stone to where we are now, the Paris Agreement has been left behind by the new evidence. The Agreement is fatally flawed: flawed in its goal of limiting warming to a very dangerous 2oC by 2100 and flawed in its strategy of relying on weak Nationally Determined Contributions to contain global warming.
The fundamental problem with the Paris Agreement is that it asks the wrong question: what do we need to do to limit global warming in the year 2100 to 2oC? The IPCC report clearly demonstrates that the essential question in 2018 is: what are all the things we can and must do between now and 2030 to keep global warming as low as possible throughout the 21st century?
The Paris Agreement must be abandoned in favour of a process that will tackle this question. While greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, locking in more and more global warming, it is grossly negligent of our politicians and climate diplomats to waste time squabbling over how to implement the now demonstrably dangerous, outdated Agreement.
Fourth, and acknowledging how useful carbon budgets have been in highlighting the extreme urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly ceasing to burn fossil fuels, it is time to abandon projections and planning based on carbon budgets.
Establishing how much carbon we can burn by 2040 or 2050 to stay under 1.5oC or 2oC and using that carbon budget to develop a trajectory to zero carbon emissions provides a false sense of security. It suggests that while we remain under our carbon budget and warming limits we can still safely burn more carbon. Realistically though, it will always be safer to burn as little carbon as possible and keep warming as low as possible, even by as little as 0.1oC.
The false sense of security is greatly exacerbated by the IPCC’s carbon budget calculations providing at best only a two in three chance of staying below the chosen warming limit. Who would board a plane or cross the road with only a 66% of arriving safely?
Fifth, it is now frequently stated that we can limit global warming to 1.5oC or even 2oC in the year 2100 only by accepting a temporary overshoot of 0.1-0.5oC mid-century, accompanied by drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere before 2100 to reduce the temperature increase to our chosen limit by 2100. But this strategy presents unacceptable risks. Not only will the overshoot increase the harms to the environment and humanity arising directly from the higher temperature, but also it will increase dramatically the chances of triggering the irreversible, positive feedback events mentioned above. This could stimulate runaway global warming, leading to ‘hothouse earth’, which even zero carbon emissions from human activities would be unable to control. Our own generation’s selfishness and stupidity would have wilfully created a self-generating inferno to bequeath to our children.
Sixth, remembering that the world’s carbon emissions are currently on track to exceed warming of 1.5oC by as early as 2030, processes such as nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, atmospheric carbon drawdown, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and hydrogen fuel that are frequently mentioned as technological ‘lifesavers’ are all too far off to solve the real problem of reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible to minimise warming. It is not possible to build enough nuclear power plants in the time available and all the other technologies will remain technically unfeasible at the scale required for at least another couple of decades. Rapidly reducing and eliminating as soon as possible all greenhouse gas emissions, principally through reducing emissions from energy production and land use and preserving existing natural carbon sinks, is the safest option.
Finally, remembering the damage that 1-2oC of warming brings, we must recognise the utter stupidity of contemplating a 4, 5 and even 6oC hotter world. Warming of 4oC before or beyond 2100, which is considered in some scenarios, will not simply be twice as bad as 2oC. Humanity and many of the ecosystems upon which human existence depends may not survive this level of global warming. How can we consider it acceptable to pass such a world on to future generations?
The evidence provided in the IPCC report contains some unavoidable and probably unwelcome lessons for national governments, both individually and as Parties to the UNFCCC:
- Abandon the Paris Agreement. Its goals and mechanisms for their achievement are outdated and fundamentally flawed;
- Replace the Paris Agreement with a process that focuses attention on implementing all the actions available to limit warming to the lowest possible level throughout this and future centuries;
- Over the next decade make the fundamental changes needed in energy, land use, industrial, economic and governance systems to create a zero emissions world by mid-century. This will require a reorganisation of societies, economies and industries on a scale similar to that which occurred in the UK and USA when each entered World War II;
- Ensure a just transition intra- and inter-nationally and develop intra- and inter-generational equity concurrently with emissions reductions;
- Democratically engage all of humanity in the task while recognising that the looming crisis cannot be averted solely through personal actions. The prime responsibility lies with collaborative action from governments and intergovernmental bodies.
The next UNFCCC conference (COP24) is in Poland in December 2018. If the Parties are serious about avoiding the increasingly harmful consequences of each incremental increase in global warming they will heed the lessons of the IPCC report, abandon the Paris Agreement and develop safer goals and strategies. Further delay pushes the world closer to catastrophe.
Peter Sainsbury is a specialist in public health medicine. He is a past president of the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic climate change.